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2006-11-21

The Next Act: Will the Republicans’ Mid-Term Loss Hurt Chances of a War on Iran?

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In a new article for the New Yorker, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reports Vice President Dick Cheney told a White House meeting one month before the mid-term elections that a Democratic victory would have little effect on the administration’s decision to go to war. But plans for a military option were made "far more complicated" by a secret CIA report which has found no conclusive evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Hersh joins us from Washington. [rush transcript included]

With the Democrats winning control of Congress is the White House and a lame duck president more or less likely to launch an attack against Iran? That’s the subject of a new * article* by veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Hersh writes in the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine, that Vice President Dick Cheney told a White House meeting one month before the mid-term elections that a Democratic victory would have little effect on the administration’s decision to go to war. But the article goes on to report that any plans for a military option were made "far more complicated" by a secret CIA report which has found no conclusive evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

Seymour Hersh joins me now from a studio in Washington DC.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh joins us now in Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SEYMOUR HERSH: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you start off by talking about this CIA assessment, this secret report.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Yeah, it simply just says that we’ve been—for the United States, with our allies the Israelis, have been doing an awful lot of collection of intelligence inside Iran, and not only with people on the ground, but also with what they call 'national technical means', satellites, other sorta—of passive detection devices you can scatter on the ground, et cetera, inside the country, looking for evidence of a secret, or what they call 'parallel' nuclear weapons facility inside Iran.

As you know, Iran has declared a number of its facilities, the underground bunker at Natanz that is talked about quite a bit, a few hundred miles south of Tehran, they’ve declared them to the International Atomic Energy Agency and they’re under inspection. In other words, all of the enrichment that’s going on now, is being inspected by the IAEA to ensure that it’s for peaceful purposes and small scale.

So the issue has been whether or not Iran is a—has a covert program and the CIA’s assessment, which may be the core of a new national intelligence estimate coming, that is scheduled to be done on Iran, but I don’t know that for sure. But the CIA statement simply said, told the rest of the intelligence community, we can’t find any evidence of a significant program. They don’t talk about the intentions. It’s very possible Iran is—does intend to do something, but as of this point, what’s the rush is the issue.

And the other major point that the CIA made in this analysis, is that if we do — if the white house does — the President and Vice President do, decide to attack Iran or permit the Israelis to, given the green light, the consequences could be much worse than we might — than they might think. You could actually drive the Sunni and Shia worlds, at least the Arab street, both Sunni and Shia together in a way that hasn’t been done since the Khaliphates, of 1,000, you know 8-900 years ago.

So you could really polarize the Middle East or at least pull them together in a way they haven’t been and the polarization of the various factions and have a unified faction against the west and us, and that was in the report.

AMY GOODMAN: Sy Hersh, what about this month before the elections? The meeting that Vice President Dick Cheney was in, on national security.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well—simply put, look, the White House, the President, the Vice President, can read polls and they knew they were in big trouble. I think, I’d been told they thought —- they knew Allen would lose. They thought it would be—-the Governor in the race for the Senate seat that Mr. Webb won in Virginia, that sort of amazing victory, but they knew weeks before that Allen wasn’t going to make it.

And so I had been told, so they read polls and Cheney was simply making the comment, they anticipated holding the senate and losing the house, by a small ma— you know, 10 seats or so, which would still be comfortable for them with that, in terms of running the government. But he made the point that in case the democrats won both the house and senate, he had — he could — you know, he went and told a long rambling anecdote about his life as a lineman in Wyoming when he was a kid, he worked on the lines. And one of his points was that when you’re a lineman in Montana, at the end of the day, for a layering, for an electrical company, rather, they were laying copper wire which was expensive and if the wire — if they had pieces over three feet in length at the end of the day, they had to turn it into headquarters and write it up and nobody wanted to do that. So what they would do is they would simply cut the pieces into two lengths, the lengths were two feet or less, or 'shorteners' he called it and throw them away, because they were under the three-foot limit.

And he said if Congress wins, if the Democrats win both houses and they want to do something about Iran and here’s his point, it’s understood by this White House that this Democratic Congress will not cut funds for the American troops in Iraq. That’s not on the table, nobody will do it, it’s politically suicide—cidal. But, the worry that was expressed by Cheney was if the Democrats come in and pass a series of amendments that tell — not binding in terms of financial issues or troops support, but just say to the White House, if you’re going to go to Iran, you must tell us what you’re doing in advance. We compel you to tell us all about overt and covert plans.

If you remember, he talked about the Bolan Amendment, a Congressman, a very modest Congressman from Maryland, offered a series of amendments in—beginning in 1982, telling the Reagan Administration they could not do anything to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, they were supporting the contras. And those amendments led the White House in the middle 80’s to start—secretly raising money for the contras by selling arms to Iran. The famous Iran-contra scandal. And, of course, Cheney was around for that, some of the people in the White House, I know Elliot Abrams, who is now a big player in the White House was indicted on a couple of misdemeanors for it, lying to congress—withholding information from congress and pleaded guilty to those misdemeanors.

So you have a situation where they were anticipating, in case it went as bad as it went, they were trying to — he was saying don’t worry about it, we’ve got it covered. This doesn’t mean, Amy, that we’re going to go to war. I’m not saying that. But it certainly doesn’t mean that the democratic victory has done anything to diminish what the people in the White House want to do. It hasn’t changed their basic standing.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Seymour Hersh, who has just written a new piece in the New Yorker magazine called The Next Act. The White House has responded to what you’ve said. White house Spokesperson, Dana Perino, criticized your article, calling it 'an error-filled piece in a series of inaccuracy riddled articles about the bush administration'. She told Agence France Presse,

DANA PERINO: "The white house is it not going to dignify the work of an author who has viciously degraded our troops and whose articles consistently rely on outright falsehoods to justify his own radical views."

Your response, Seymour Hersh.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, you know, I’m, I’m—-look so I’m not going to get invited this year to the White House, you know, christmas party. Ok, that’s part of my responses. Presidents have been critical of me. The Clinton Administration said stuff, frankly, that was even just as bad. So that’s just — it goes with the territory. It’s just — it doesn’t — the comment doesn’t go to the issue of whether or not there’s a secret CIA Assessment. It doesn’t matter what they call me. I think it’s — frankly, I think it says more about the white house than it does about me that they have to resort to such name-calling.

I’m saying, that there are people in this administration and serious people who consult for it and people who served at high levels in the government, and these are not radicals, not people who dish the troops, these are people who wore the uniform and took bullets for America. They are telling me things that go contrary to the policy. That’s the issue. The issue is not me. It’s what the people who tell me, and if there is a CIA Report, the white house should be asked about it very directly. Is there such a report?

And the other side of the story I get into is, that Cheney and the people in his office, the Vice President’s office, sat on the report, were not interested in what the CIA had to say, and what drove some of my people a little bit up the wall, my friends inside the government, is, of course, we’ve seen this before, when the white house chose to ignore intelligence before the war in Iraq.

Any intelligence that suggested there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was dismissed out of hand, as was this CIA Assessment. The White House, in other words, believes there is, the President or Vice President, believe Iran has a has a bomb. And—if the CIA says otherwise, well, they just don’t get it. They’re wrong. And that’s not the way to run the American government, particularly in these perilous times. And that’s the real issue Amy, obviously. I wish — I wish some of the reporters would ask that question and they will eventual. Don’t forget the story we just published yesterday, nobody has really had a chance to read it.

AMY GOODMAN: The Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Dr. Muhammad Javad Zarif delivered an address at Columbia University here in New York last week. He spoke about ongoing talks with western nations, about what he insisted was Iran’s peaceful pursuit of nuclear technology.

AMBASSADOR JAVAD ZARIF: If you —- if the objective it to strengthen the non-proliferation regime, then Iran has put on the table so many suggestions based on serious research by independent scholars that would, from a legal perspective, from a political perspective, as well as from a technical and monitoring perspective, make it next to impossible for Iran to divert this technology to non-peaceful uses. These suggestions included, for instance, permanent presence of IAEA inspectors, which goes even beyond the additional protocol. On Iranian territory, on the sensitive side, so that they could ensure that nothing would be done in—-on these sites that would be a violation of the NPT.

Other suggestions have been made, Iran presented packages to the Europeans Three, when we were negotiating about the so-called objective guarantees. Iran presented packages to the European Three that would have, in—in all possibilities, prevented diversion. That they did not come back and tell us that your package requires this additional element. I’m telling you, as somebody who negotiated with the Europeans until 2005. They did not, they never came back and told us that if you added two more inspections, we will be fine with that. Never. They’ve simply said that you are not reliable enough to have this technology.

Now, where does that reliability come from? Does that come from the fact that Iran has not invaded another country for 250 years? Now, we have countries that have access to extremely sensitive nuclear technology with a record of invasion, aggression in the recent history. We have countries that have access to nuclear technology, who have used it. We have countries who have access to nuclear technology that have — let’s take any criteria, violations of human rights, state terrorism, noncompliance with the security council, apply each single one of these characteristics and criteria to Israel and see if Israel should have nuclear weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Dr. Muhammad Javad Zarif, speaking at Columbia University. Seymour Hersh, your response.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well look, Zarif’s a very dignified, a great gentleman, and I do respect him, I like him quite a bit. But, there’s no question on the other side of the coin you have Ahmadinejad, the President Mahmoud Ahmajine—madinejad of Iran who is really very — he’s very — he’s very mouthy, says all sorts of outrageous things that he should not say, that I think are inappropriate and very counterproductive.

And so you have that issue. and that does undercut, a great deal of what rational people, and good people like Dr. Zarif say. I wish he would shut up because I think the facts are as the CI —- as I pretty much said, that there isn’t a hell of a lot of evidence that Iran is—- I’ve been hearing people talk to me for ten years of Iran being three to five years away from the bomb and the Israelis have been saying for many years—that they’re on the edge of the bomb. So at some point you have to come to terms.

This White House simply chooses not to listen to Zarif, but Ahmadinejad. And I must say he does it make it easy for them to do so, Ahmadinejad and he is—But the fact of the matter is, above and beyond all the rhetoric, our allies, the British, the French and the Germans, I talk to these people, they all acknowledge as somebody said to me, I think I quoted them in the article, there’s no smoking gun. But they all believe that Iran is secretly pursuing a bomb and the Israelis are constantly flooding Washington and the European community with secret intelligence. That they claim supports that view.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the fact that Israel has a nuclear bomb, perhaps many, perhaps hundreds?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well I mean, prob—as you know, I wrote a book about Israel’s bomb, what, 15 years ago, and —- and at that time it was 3-400, so we’re talking about a country that could have 600. You know, Amy, you know it’s funny, when I wrote that book, it was published in 1991, The Sampson Option. I ended up writing a little note about it saying that, you know, one of the problems you have is the West Bank is a big issue and the Palestinian issue, but even if we settle that issue, which I optimistically and stupidly thought could be done in the next decade. Once you got past the Palestinian issue, for the rest of the middle east there would be the issue of a nuclear armed Israel, sitting amid—-amidst Arab countries with no nuclear weapons, that would be a huge issue. We haven’t even gotten to the point of resolving the Palestinian question of this.

If somebody would’ve told me in 1991 we would still be fighting and we would still be in this terrible position we’re in, in Palestine and the West Bank and Gaza, with the violence that’s going on now, I would find it hard to believe. I don’t know what it’s going to take.

I thought the biggest news of the day —- today—-this morning I noticed it wasn’t on the front pages of either the Times—The New York Times or The Washington Post, was the fact that the Syrian Ambassador — or deputy — or Foreign Minister, Former Ambassador here, Waleed showed up in Iraq and there’s gonna be a conference between Iraq, Iran and Syria.

If you’re going to resolve anything, I think anybody — anybody that believes, that any plan, the ones that are being talked about now, the new plan that was reported this week in The Washington Post about what the Pentagon wants to do. I read about the same sort of idea, in the —-this article, this week of that we have some elaborate new plan to save the day. Any plan that’s going to be developed by -— in this country that calls — that depends on either the Iraqi police or the Iraqi military to stand up, is a nonstarter.

So we have to really start thinking differently about Iraq, and any thought about bringing in, for example, the UN, or even some — any other group, anybody that comes in to Iraq right now is going to be an outsider, is going to be a target, is going to be accused of being involved with collaborators by either the Sunnis or the Shiites. They’re all going to be targeted. This country is really in bad shape.

One solution, obviously, it seems to me, is to do exactly what’s happening. The two countries that seem to have some standing with the insurgency, Syria and Iran, maybe can do something because they have one thing in common with a lot of the people of Iraq; they’re standing up to America. And it is going to be very hard for us to accept the notion that we can’t broker anything. Which, I think is much more likely than not. I think it’s gonna have to come from the other side, that is from the Iranian and Syrian side. Why should they want to see, a Somalia on their borders? They don’t. And so that’s to me, the most important story of the day.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. We’re talking to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh. He has another piece out this week in the New Yorker, it’s called The Next Act: Is a Damaged Administration Less Likely to Attack Iran or More?.

The issue of all of these new kinds of alliances, the — Syria going now to Iraq. Iraq and Syria normalizing relations , al-Talibani going to Iran, and now the person who President Bush has nominated to replace Donald Rumsfeld, supporting, is this true, direct talks, Robert Gates, with Iran and Syria, bringing them into direct negotiation with Iraq?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, he’s said so publicly. He’s written that and he said so publicly. Robert Gates, the Former CIA Director, who as you know was a — there was a lot of controversy about Bob Gates, when he was nominated to be CIA Director because of — what we’re seeing is a tilting of intelligence and et cetera, et cetera, and protection of George Bush Sr. in Iran-contra. But having said all that, Gates also is a professional, and I think Gates is very much a Cold War Era, and that probably drove his intelligence assessment as much as anything else.

I don’t think he was necessarily corrupt in any way. He just very strong mined. He’s coming in and what I write in this article is that what’s happened is—pretty simple, as I said. The White House can read polls. Rummy’s resignation, if everybody remembers, it was announced the day after the election, he was — he resigned and Gates was nominated right away by the President.

Now, obviously, this had been talked about in advance and obviously, the best guess I have and my friends tell me, is that, of course, if the election had turned out well, that is if they’d held the Senate, not done badly in the House lost by a small margin, I think Rumsfeld would still be on the job. If it goes bad, he had to go, he agreed, Cheney agreed in advance. Cheney is a longtime friend of the Bush family, not only the young President, but his father, who they call in Texas, is known as '41', he was the 41st president, George Bush Sr. And so this is, obviously, cooked up because the president had a — George Bush — the son had to show some movement, some comedy, on the day after the election. If he was handed the terrible setback, he had to be able to show he was open to it, he held meetings with the democrats he really doesn’t have much use for, Nancy Pelosi, et cetera.

What I understand and what I write in this article, and this is comes from friends of the family, including people that, most of them have worked with the old man, simply is that James Baker and Scowcroft, Brent Scowcroft, the former advisors to George Bush Sr., 41, cooked up the plan with the President and his father, and the idea being to get Gates in, get rid of Rumsfeld who is polarizing and also the underlying purpose was to have the Gates-Scowcroft-Baker as a block to try and cut into the power of Dick Cheney.

There’s no question that Cheney is the most influential person in the administration, and this is seen — the question is, will Gates stand up to Cheney? Gates is going to be Secretary of Defense. The Defense Department is running an enormous array of covert actions without telling Congress. They don’t see — they see them as military necessities and not CIA Operations, so Rumsfeld has expanded the military and covert operations all over the world. We don’t know much about it.

I write about this too, in this piece. The Congress is not briefed on this stuff and, you know, passive, acquiescent, supine, or prone, take your choice, but they’re a down Congress and so is it going to get better this term? Maybe. But certainly the question for America and for the world is, will Gates stand up to Cheney and I’m not sure he’s capable of doing it. Cheney is a big force in there.

AMY GOODMAN: Questions are being raised about Robert Gates’ role at the CIA, both in connection with the Iran-contra scandal and with the secret arming of Saddam Hussein a while ago. In 1987, President Reagan nominated Gates to become CIA Director, but the nomination had to be withdrawn because of stiff opposition in the Senate.

Four years later, President George H.W. Bush re-nominated gates to be CIA Chief and that time he was confirmed. The day after President Bush nominated Gates as Defense Secretary, we had a wide ranging discussion about his past. We talked, among others, to Bob Perry, who was one of the those who helped to break the Iran-contra scandal. We also talked to Former CIA and State Department Analyst Mel Goodman. This is a part of what he had to say.

MEL GOODMAN: Over the period of the 1980’s as a Deputy for Intelligence and then as a Deputy to CIA Director Bill Casey, was politicizing intelligence. He was spinning intelligence on all the major issues of the day, on the Soviet Union, on Central America, on the Middle East, on Southwest Asia, and I thought this record, this charge should be presented before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

I think also it’s important that, Bob Gates is a graduate of the Iran-contra class of 1986 and the reason why he had to withdraw his nomination in 1987 was simply because the majority of the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, when Ronald Reagan nominated Gates as CIA Director, did not believe Gates’ pleas that he knew nothing about Iran-contra and this was happening around him, but he wasn’t part of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Mel Goodman talked about bob gates being key in something we’ve come to know very well now, shaping the facts to fit the policy. Seymour Hersh.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Look, you can spend a lot of time going over the past. Iran-contra was one of the most underreported stories of the time. As much attention as it got, there’s no question that the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, and all of the people immediately around him, knew much more. This is one of the worst reported stories of the decade, of the last couple of decades. We really didn’t get to it, none of us in the press corps, it was a failure. Bob Gates was certainly in the middle of this, but I’ll tell you right now, the issue for Gates, if you want to worry about the past, worry about the past. The issue for Gates now is, is he going to throw — President of a major University, he’s written a memoir, he’s come out of it with his reputation pretty much intact, is he going to throw it away, by going into the tank?

In other words, one way he’s brought in, one reason he’s brought in, he’s seen as somebody, unlike Rumsfeld, who in case they decide to go to war or they think there’s intelligence that supports going to war with Iran, he’s seen as somebody that can go brief it and be accepted by the Congress. As you know, many of the legislators are Democrats, Joe Biden among them, who voted against Gates, very — when he was up for CIA Director, a decade ago, were very quick to say they would vote for him now.

And so the issue for Gates — Gates is really going to be in a very tough spot. Is he going to throw away 35 years and put himself right back in the maelstrom by being —- being a mouthpiece for some of the people who want to do things that he may not agree with, or is he going to tell it straight? But he’s going to have credibility, he’s gonna be seen as somebody who is going to be replacing Rumsfeld. Bob Gates is not the worst person in the world. I don’t disagree with what Mel Goodwin—-Goodman says, and he and I have talked about this in the past. But gates is also very strong-minded and what he could see as tilting intelligence, could be Gates inflicting his views which is also wrong, but it’s different.

It’s not quite — in any case I’m not apologizing for him, I’m just saying let’s deal with reality. The reality is Gates is a fresh face and there’s a lot of people, Scowcroft and James Baker among them, who are very worried about what’s going to happen in '08. The Republicans do not want to lose the election in ’08 as they lost it in ’06. They don't want to see a democratic president in, and so this is a sort of the last hurrah. The old boys, around George Bush Sr., saying that whatever the kid, the young boy wants to do as a lame duck next year, he better be aware that the party’s future is at stake and that’s what’s going on here. I think this is really sort of a huge big canvass that we really don’t quite fully understand. But Gates, if he’s going to come in and be the briefer they think he might be on all issues, and spin it the way they want, well that’s gonna be his problem. But if he’s going to have some credibility and he’s told friends, he understands his position and he’s not gonna, as I say, he’s not gonna throw away a lifetime on this issue, let’s just hope that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, what about Curveball? How does he fit into this picture and who was he?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, Curveball was a — the German started — they had a bad — your mentioning this because also in this article I write about the fact that right now the Israelis are pushing very hard some human intelligence known at 'humit'. They have a source, the Israelis have come up with a number of sources inside Iran, who are probably real, they probably exist, and they’ve come up with new information, sorta to balance the CIA’s assessment, internally, it’s information that claims that Iran is secretly been working on detonating a warhead, a very complicated device, to explode a nuclear weapon is very, very tricky.

You know thousands of small dynamite pieces have to be imploded at the same time to compress the core and get the reaction you want, the fusion you want. And they’ve been testing it according to the Israelis, and this information is not being analyzed externally, but kept mostly by the — in the White House and at the Pentagon. The CIA is not getting a big taste of it so nobody is quite sure how good it is.

And the problem with human intelligence, of course, is, before the buildup to Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi, the famous Ahmed Chalabi, was spinning us up with all sorts of human sources that were telling us that Saddam was basically — swimming in piles of enriched uranium, et cetera, building bombs in his backyard, all those stories. And so Curveball was another human source that came in through the Germans, the Germans first got him, the German Intelligence Service, the BMD is the acronym for it we use here. And passed onto the United States and a very competent CIA Officer named Tyler Drumheller was extremely — he was head of the European Operations and extremely skeptical. He’s just written a very excellent book about it. Extremely skeptical of Curveball, but it didn’t matter, his skepticism and even the Germans’ skepticism about the validity of the source and of the integrity of this source didn’t matter because the white house glommed on to it. It’s called stove piping, this idea of taking intelligence and doing what you want and shoving it in and making it be the primary basis for operations of what you do. Faulty intelligence, intelligence to please, if you will. And so we had experience with that.

What’s happening right now and the reason some of the people talked to me about the new Israeli intelligence, is that there’s a great debate inside the community about how good it is, whether it’s for — you know, there is human intelligence about a warhead being manufactured, but nobody in the CIA knows much about it, who the source is, knows — are there drawings, any evidence, any technical evidence? Those questions aren’t being asked and answered because the White House likes it.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, I know you have to go pay the meter for your car, but is the subtitle of your article damage — Is a Damaged Administration Less Likely to Attack Iran or More? Well, what’s your assessment?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Doesn’t matter what I think. The guys who talk to me are divided pretty evenly. Some—some of the guys who know a great deal about what’s going on inside believe that they really want to do it and they will do it. This President will not leave office without doing something about Iran, if he can’t get it done diplomatically and at this point that’s not — it’s a nonstarter, and by the way, Amy, why should Iran talk to us?

The Iranian message to us and — again, this is something that I — I dealt with in this article — the Iranian message to us has been pretty clear. Who are you guys? We’ve got the force in the Middle East. We have more influence on Iraq than you do. We’re more influential throughout the Middle East with, among the Shia, than you are. Take you and your corrupt UN and stick it, and that’s basically their message to us. If we think the Iranians are going to negotiate with us about uranium enrichment, as long as our requirement is before we sit down at the table with the Iranians, they give up the enrichment — that’s our position right now, it’s a nonstarter, it’s a complete nonstarter.

So it doesn’t matter what I think. What matters is a lot of people who know the situation well, well, believe it’s still very much on the table. On the other hand, there are other people equally as skeptical about this administration, how it makes decisions, that say — people I talk with that say, the reality of today, the collapse of Iraq, the weakened political position of the President, the fact that the republicans are — many leading republicans are not only against the current policy, but very worried about ’08, will mitigate against something, that at this point seems to unnecessary as bombing Iran without talking to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh, want to thank you very much for joining us.

SEYMOUR HERSH: You’ll pay my parking ticket, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Never.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Okay. Bye-bye.

AMY GOODMAN: All right. Go pay it yourself. This is Democracy Now! democracynow.org the war and peace report, democracy now! Seymour Hersh’s piece is called the The Next Act in this edition of the New Yorker Magazine.

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